THE FIVE TRIALS OF PAUL
Part II - The Council
1 And looking intently at the council, Paul said, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.” 2 And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. 3 Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” 4 Those who stood by said, “Would you revile God's high priest?” 5 And Paul said, “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’”
6 Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.” 7 And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. 9 Then a great clamor arose, and some of the scribes of the Pharisees' party stood up and contended sharply, “We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?” 10 And when the dissension became violent, the tribune, afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him away from among them by force and bring him into the barracks.
11 The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”
12 When it was day, the Jews made a plot and bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. 13 There were more than forty who made this conspiracy. 14 They went to the chief priests and elders and said, “We have strictly bound ourselves by an oath to taste no food till we have killed Paul. 15 Now therefore you, along with the council, give notice to the tribune to bring him down to you, as though you were going to determine his case more exactly. And we are ready to kill him before he comes near.”
16 Now the son of Paul's sister heard of their ambush, so he went and entered the barracks and told Paul. 17 Paul called one of the centurions and said, “Take this young man to the tribune, for he has something to tell him.” 18 So he took him and brought him to the tribune and said, “Paul the prisoner called me and asked me to bring this young man to you, as he has something to say to you.” 19 The tribune took him by the hand, and going aside asked him privately, “What is it that you have to tell me?” 20 And he said, “The Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul down to the council tomorrow, as though they were going to inquire somewhat more closely about him. 21 But do not be persuaded by them, for more than forty of their men are lying in ambush for him, who have bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they have killed him. And now they are ready, waiting for your consent.” 22 So the tribune dismissed the young man, charging him, “Tell no one that you have informed me of these things.”
23 Then he called two of the centurions and said, “Get ready two hundred soldiers, with seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen to go as far as Caesarea at the third hour of the night. 24 Also provide mounts for Paul to ride and bring him safely to Felix the governor.” 25 And he wrote a letter to this effect:
26 “Claudius Lysias, to his Excellency the governor Felix, greetings. 27 This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them when I came upon them with the soldiers and rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman citizen. 28 And desiring to know the charge for which they were accusing him, I brought him down to their council. 29 I found that he was being accused about questions of their law, but charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment. 30 And when it was disclosed to me that there would be a plot against the man, I sent him to you at once, ordering his accusers also to state before you what they have against him.”
31 So the soldiers, according to their instructions, took Paul and brought him by night to Antipatris. 32 And on the next day they returned to the barracks, letting the horsemen go on with him. 33 When they had come to Caesarea and delivered the letter to the governor, they presented Paul also before him. 34 On reading the letter, he asked what province he was from. And when he learned that he was from Cilicia, 35 he said, “I will give you a hearing when your accusers arrive.” And he commanded him to be guarded in Herod's praetorium.
— Acts 23:1-35, ESV
Deja vu was not kind to the Apostle Paul. Earlier in his life, he had been part of a Jerusalem mob who put a person on trial, named Stephen, simply for being a Christian and preaching the gospel, then summarily executed him. Shortly thereafter, Paul, or Saul as he was known then, appeared before the Jewish Council, the Sanhedrin, to gain their favor and get their approval to arrest other Christians and see to their imprisonments and executions.
Over two decades later, Paul stood in Stephen’s shoes, surrounded by the mob, shortly to appear before the Council. They would have killed Paul, too, but he had one thing Stephen (and the Lord Jesus Christ) lacked, Roman citizenship. Therefore, a Roman officer saved Paul from the trial by mob. Then, in an attempt to find out what in Heaven’s name was going on, he ordered Paul’s second of five trials, before the Jerusalem Council, or Sanhedrin.
This trial records a peculiar turn of events that required a peculiar strategy resulting in a peculiar outcome. The KJV translation of 2 Peter 3:9 says Christians are “a peculiar people.” Indeed we are, or should be, like our peculiar champion, Paul. In trial two, three peculiar principles unfold.
God’s Peculiar People
It is believed that Paul was an unusually well-educated man. We think he matriculated from an elite university in Tarsus. We know he studied at the Gamaliel School in Jerusalem, a place for only the best and brightest. He had more degrees than a thermometer, and when he became a Christian, he did not turn them in nor check his brain at the door.
Paul was smart, and his good sense served him well in this trial. He had knowledge of the Sadducees, including their corrupt high priest Ananias (Josephus records he was “a hoarder of money”). The Sadducees were the left-wing liberals of the day. Paul had knowledge and experience as a Pharisee, the right-wing fundamentalists. So Paul used his brain to turn the Council’s glare away from him and make them stare at, and fight with, one another.
Divide and conquer is a strategy used by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Paul was a good guy who used it against men of bad faith. It got ugly for a moment, but Paul’s wisdom worked like a charm. It threw this second trial into a mistrial, and spared his life for the three trials to follow.
God commends study, smarts, and shrewdness. He wants us to use them to advance the gospel and strengthen the church. Paul’s expertise in the Old Testament made him a fitting writer for the New Testament. His knowledge of secular verse helped him connect and witness the gospel in Europe. His reading of the room in this scene saved his own skin and bought him another day to live and preach the gospel.
A Ph.D. is not required to be an outstanding Christian. But when you face trials as a believer, the more you know the better off you will be. Contrary to the caricature of blind and dumb faith, Christianity is a call to think deeply, read widely, and speak courageously. As Jim Valvano said in his famous speech, every day we should laugh, cry, and think.
Read and think about the Bible, first and foremost. Be sharp on as many other subjects as you can, for you never know how it will help you share the gospel. Filter all news through God’s good news, and you will have God’s peculiar wisdom. There is no wisdom like God’s wisdom, and Christians have exclusive access to it every day.
God’s Peculiar Promises
Paul’s stated desire, after fulfilling his three missionary journeys and pilgriming back to Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost and deliver a love offering to the poor, persecuted Jewish Christians, was to go westward and preach the gospel in Rome. He believed this was God’s will for his life and ministry. He never dreamed he’d be accosted, arrested, and arraigned for trial, twice so far, nor that events like these would be God’s providential means of getting him to Rome.
When the Council descended into chaos, outsmarted by Paul as they were, the Apostle’s fate was still uncertain, humanly speaking. Jerusalem still wanted his head. Roman officials brought him in for protection. But at this point, there was no guarantee Paul would get out of Jerusalem alive.
Then, God appeared and made Paul a promise. The Lord Jesus Christ, “stood by him and said … you must testify also in Rome.” So, to Rome Paul will go, if you believe the word of the Lord.
We must admit God had a peculiar way of communicating with Paul. It was personal. Christ appeared to Paul, then still Saul, on the Damascus Road, personally. Many believe the three years Paul spent after his conversion in Arabia were monastic years spent with Jesus, personally. And here Jesus is, personally, giving Paul a promise, that he will make it out of Jerusalem alive and proclaim the gospel in Rome.
Just as you do not have to earn a doctorate to be an outstanding follower of Christ, so you don’t have to see Jesus personally to get an audience with God. Paul’s life and ministry were peculiar. But yours can be, also, when you learn to listen to God and cling to His promises.
Paul, in spite of his peculiar experiences, would point people to Scripture as the primary source to hear from God (ref. 2 Timothy 3:16). Simon Peter, in spite of his personal time with Jesus and other peculiar experiences, said the Bible is the way “more sure” to listen to God (ref. 2 Peter 1:19-21).
Personally, I do not believe that any of us will literally see the Lord until we die or He comes again. But we can see Him, hear Him, fellowship with Him, every time we open up the pages of His inspired, inerrant, infallible word, then trust the Holy Spirit to give us meaning and insight.
My life’s example includes one of the last commandments God used Paul to write in the Bible. “Preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2). All Christians should live to proclaim the truths of the word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. But when I read this, again, in 1986, the Holy Spirit gave me the peculiar calling to become a Pastor. I’ve let God and His providence fill in the details. I didn’t think I’d survive seminary, either time. I remember times the lynch mobs, religious mobs inside the churches, Sadducees and Pharisees, tried to hang me. But God has delivered me up to this day, and I believe he will until the day I die, which will by my ultimate deliverance.
In the Bible, all of God’s promises are true, and they become personal to those of us with faith. They are not there for health and wealth, but for holiness and witnessing. There are no promises like God’s promises. For God’s people, every one of them will come true.
God’s Peculiar Sovereignty
God showed up, peculiarly and personally, to Paul at his second trial. And God did, personally, promise Paul he would make it to Rome. He just didn’t tell Paul how. For if He had, it just might have scared the brave Apostle to death.
Upon hearing Jesus’ promise, Paul might have pictured a subdued mob, a forgiving Roman republic, and a first class ticket to Rome. To Rome Paul would go, but not in the manner he might have imagined. The mob became even more determined to kill Paul. Rome did not drop the charges, but prepped Paul for trial three (and there will be two more). He was escorted by marshals and soldiers to a long layover in Caesarean, headquarters of the Roman governor of Israel. This seems a most peculiar way for the Lord to fulfill His promise to His faithful servant, Paul.
God is sovereign. He put Paul in chains, but used the Roman government to deliver him to Rome. He heard the mob, and providentially placed Paul’s nephew there to hear them, too.
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
There is no sovereignty like God’s sovereignty. He delivered Paul from the Jerusalem mob. He rescued him from the evils of the Council. Off to Rome he would go. The peculiar thing about Paul is that he was invincible until God’s purposes for him were complete.
This is true for every child of God. We are all invincible until we are immortal. Life on earth does not always go the way we plan, but it always goes according to God’s plan. Read up on it. Claim His promises. Trust His sovereignty. Let these peculiar principles guide you through life. It will be for your good and God’s glory.